Erasmus Darwin

Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin's Grandfather, was an early evolution scientist
Erasmus Darwin. Joseph Wright

Early Life and Education:

Born December 12, 1731 - Died April 18, 1802

Erasmus Darwin was the youngest of seven children born to Elizabeth Hill and lawyer Robert Darwin of Elston in Nottinghamshire, England. As a child, Erasmus attended school at Chesterfield Grammar School and then enrolled in St. John's College in Cambridge. Soon after graduation, Erasmus moved to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland to study medicine.

He settled back in England and became an innovative doctor who used non-traditional techniques to save patients.

In addition to a medical doctor, Darwin was a poet, philosopher, naturalist, fossil hunter, and inventor. It is said he even created a copying machine that would be equivalent to the ones used in offices everywhere today. Regarded as one of the most brilliant men in England in his day, he spent his time with other great thinkers like James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, and Joseph Priestly. Many of his innovative ideas and inventions have been said to have begun as ideas when talking with these friends.

Personal Life:

Erasmus Darwin led a very scandalous personal life, but was revered all the same. Quite the ladies' man, he was a believer in "free love" and was said to be quite attractive to women despite his over three hundred pound frame and stutter. He more than made up for his shortcomings with his confidence, brilliance, and charisma.

His grandson,Charles Darwin was often embarrassed by his grandfather's salacious behavior, but eventually wrote a book in support of his grandfather.

Erasmus married Polly Howard in 1757. They had four sons and one daughter. One of the sons and their daughter died in infancy. After Polly's death in 1770, Erasmus began an intimate relationship with his children's governess Mary Parker.

Together, they had two illegitimate daughters whom Erasmus treated equally to his children born in wedlock. However, Mary left the area in 1782 to marry another man, taking the girls with her.

In 1775, Erasmus met his second wife, Elizabeth Pole. She was married at the time, but that didn't stop Erasmus from pursuing her with poetry and love letters. Elizabeth's husband died in 1780 and she promptly married Erasmus. The couple ended up having four sons and three daughters. One son died in infancy.

Rumor also persisted that Erasmus Darwin fathered at least one more illegitimate child with a married woman named Lucy Swift. This was never proven, but the baby girl was said to have looked more like Darwin than of Lucy Swift's husband.

Later in life, Darwin devoted a lot of his time and effort to establish a boarding school for women in England. He supported his two illegitimate daughters as they sought to bring formal education to middle class women. Darwin was known to be a proponent of educating women the same as men in formal schools instead of in the home. He believed women should learn a variety of subjects like chemistry and botany and not be stuck only reading seedy romance novels.

Sadly, he would not see the culmination of his work in this field. Erasmus Darwin died of a sudden illness on April 18, 1802.


Erasmus Darwin was one of the first intellectuals of his time that put forth very controversial ideas about evolution. Instead of writing directly about evolution and inviting critics to attack his ideas, most of Darwin's early writings about the topic were in poetry form.

However, Erasmus did publish his radical ideas that species change over time in his most famous scientific publication called Zoonomia. While Erasmus Darwin is not usually recognized for his contribution to the theory of evolution, there is no doubt his views influenced his now very famous grandson as he developed his own theory of evolution through natural selection.